“Reddish soil bubbles up from the mud. Red, like the blood of the forest. Craters are everywhere: the landscape of an alien planet.
“Get away from the edge!”, shouts a man, as soon as I start walking towards the pit, which is at least 20 metres deep.
Down there, gold diggers are soaking in the mud, tiny little helpless ants.
Suddenly, a thunderclap: it’s a landslide. You can feel the earth shaking under your feet. A huge piece of clay collapses to the bottom of the crater which gets bigger and bigger all the time…
“Someone always gets trapped…the last one was just a week ago”.
In front of me Tiburcio, who is 47 years old, cracks a sad smile, showing his few remaining teeth.
It’s only 7 in the morning, but his breath hints that he’s already been drinking for hours.
“Before”, he was a woodcutter in Porto Velho; one day he chopped three fingers off his left hand and he learned to play the guitar with the only two he had left.
Everything starts in 2007, with a post on a blog: a teacher in Apui, an unremarkable small city on the Transamazonian way, tells the stories he’s heard from passers-by in a local bar, about a river flowing with gold, somewhere deep down in the forest.
And that was it: in a few short weeks the South American media circus spread the news of a new Eldorado, and all of a sudden 15.000 gold diggers invaded the virgin forest, attracted by the promise of easy money.
Tiburcio was one of them.
This has been the greatest gold rush since the 80’s, when more than 80.000 gold diggers arrived in Sierra Pelada.
It became a living hell in an instant. Thousands got malaria and dysentery. The only ones to get really rich were the aircraft pilots, shopkeepers and prostitutes.
None of the four drifters who first found the gold have lived to tell the tale.
They say it’s because the envy, the cachaca the women…
They took them away…
The first mountain has gone, melted into a clotted blood red sea of mud. Time has gone fast too, together with money and the gold. Within two years the gold mine was exhausted.
So..they had to dig and dig, deeper into the ground, hoping to actually find something. The crater gets bigger too and spreads like a cancer into the forest.
Those who could still afford it, decided to leave.
The others, persevere.
30 children, 60 women, 400 miners, 1 church.
Everyday, they tell the same story: myths from a forgotten past:
“…They found 36 kilos of gold, they have a castle now”…
“…You remember the local priest..he now owns an enormous gold nugget…"
and so on and so on..
Meanwhile, Tiburcio is still digging the soil. Together with four other men, he washes the landslip, with high pressure pumps.
The muddy river is filtered through a pan which is moved continuously in circles, together with few drops of mercury. Some grains become the colour of silver.
Over a naked flame, the mercury evaporates, leaving a few small, glittering pieces of metal..
“It’s gold”, says Tiburcio, holding some specks of dust in his hand.
And I just can’t help but wonder… all of this, the crater, the holes in the ground, what for? A few small grains of dust.
At the end of the day, on the scales, the meagre spoils are equally divided between the whole lot of them.
They get 2 grams each, currently worth 56 euros
Tiburcio shakes his head: “During the gold rush, a whole night with a prostitute could cost you 120 grams… Now, you can get away with only 5 grams.”
In front of his shack, with beer and cachaca in good supply, he’s playing the guitar with his two fingers.
“What do you think Tiburcio”, I ask. “Will there ever be a day when the forest will get her land back?”
“Here, not even the weeds will grow back again” says Tiburcio.
But I know he doesn’t even care.
“A vida è agora”.
“Life is now”.